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What’s Singapore Math?

Child working on a math problemParents in the United States often hear (and stress about) how students in other countries perform better than our children in math and science. With that in mind, many schools and homeschoolers are implementing an approach to teaching elementary math that is common practice in Singapore.

Singapore math, which refers to the teaching methods or the actual curriculum used for kindergarten through sixth grade in the small island country, has become popular due to Singapore’s consistent top ranking on an international assessment of student math achievement called the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). In the latest TIMSS report in 2007, Singapore was ranked in the top three in fourth- and eighth-grade math scores, while the United States ranked ninth and eleventh, respectively.

Mastery, Not Memorization
Supporters of Singapore math credit the Singaporean methods of instruction and curriculum for its students’ success. While American math instruction often relies on drilling and memorization of many skills each year, Singapore math focuses on children not just learning but also truly mastering a limited number of concepts each school year. The goal is for children to perform well because they understand the material on a deeper level; they are not just learning it for the test.

“The sequence of topics in Singapore math has been carefully constructed based upon child development theory,” says Jeffery Thomas, president of Singapore Math Inc., the primary producer of Singapore math products for the U.S. market. “The means to mastery is problem solving, and the beauty of the approach is that the majority of students are well prepared to tackle increasingly difficult topics, such as fractions and ratio, when they are introduced in the third through fifth grades. Those students are also then typically ready for algebra and geometry in middle school.”

Students in the same classroom may learn the concepts at different paces, but ultimately they all learn them and help develop their own solid foundation for further math learning. This prevents the need for reteaching as students move to the next grade.

Thomas and his wife, Dawn, a native Singaporean, helped bring Singapore math to the United States in the late 1990s by adapting Singaporean textbooks and workbooks for the U.S. market through their company. Now Singapore math is part of the core curriculum at schools in 40 states, Thomas says. Many schools have adopted Singapore math as their core, others have brought it in gradually, and still others are using it for gifted and talented students, or for struggling students.

What Type of Students Benefit from Singapore Math?
There is no guarantee that the Singapore method will make your child a math whiz, but teachers who use it believe it can help any child. “Most any child would benefit from this program,” explains Kevin Mahoney, a math curriculum coordinator at a private school in Massachusetts, who also maintains “That’s because of its reliance on understanding number sense, problem solving and conceptual understanding of what these kids are doing. Singapore math requires children to understand how something works, like long division. But they’re also going to understand why long division works, not just the how but the why.”

Singapore math also relies heavily on visualization, which is often neglected in the American classroom. “In typical American math teaching, you use a concrete-abstract approach. If I’m going to teach about multiplication I will bring out physical objects and demonstrate how to multiply, then move to the abstraction of lining up numbers in a multiplication equation,” Mahoney says. Singapore, on the other hand, introduces a middle step between the concrete and abstract called the pictorial approach. “It asks students and teachers to draw a diagram of the concepts going on. This is not an idea that’s exclusive to Singapore, but it’s so well expressed in a coherent idea in the curriculum in a comprehensive way,” he says.

Students also learn to use model drawing to solve those word problems that many of us remember fondly from elementary school. Instead of trying to picture the problem in their heads, then writing out the equation to solve it, students in Singapore math diagram the elements of the word problem. “Model drawing is really exciting to Americans because they’ve seen never anything like it,” Mahoney says. “It gives American teachers a tool to help students decode those sticky word problems.”

Success Stories
Since Singapore math was added to the core curriculum at Pennacre Country Day School, an independent K-6 school in Wellesley, Mass., there has been a noticeable change in student performance. Mahoney says a recent assessment found 20-percentile gains in standardized testing of third graders compared to previous third-grade classes. The school also determined that 89 percent of parents said their children had a very positive experience with Singapore math, and were more competent in problem solving and arithmetic thinking.

In Hawaii, students and teachers at Shafter Elementary are also taking to Singapore math in a big way. “The students just grab onto it because it makes sense to them,” says Robin Martin, principal of the Honolulu school that is using Singapore math in its K-6 curriculum. “I don’t exaggerate: every day a teacher was coming into my office and saying, ‘Oh my god, the kids are getting this.’ The kids are just so excited about it. When the teachers see the kids excited, the teachers really put effort into it. They see that it’s really having an impact.”

A Parent’s Role in Singapore Math
Singapore math instructors encourage parents to be open-minded. Singapore math is not what most parents in the United States studied in school, but that doesn’t mean they need to resist it. While you may want to help your child learn the times table the way you did, you should also consider this different approach.

“Many parents want to tell their children not to do a math problem this way, or they discourage, saying there is an easier way,” Martin says. “Part of Singapore math is children making meaning of the math. Just because the parents understand it one way doesn’t mean the children won’t another.”
Char Forsten, a consultant and writer who helps schools implement Singapore math, explains, “When I was in school, the emphasis was on getting the correct answer; here it’s about understanding the math and explaining your answer. That’s a big thing that parents need to understand.” We may want our children to get the right answer, but we also want them to know why it is the right answer.

Even though Singapore math may seem strange to you, you can still help your child access it. If your child is not learning Singapore math in school, you can purchase materials on your own. offers a placement test to determine where your child may be in the curriculum, so you can select the right textbook and workbook combination.

Be aware, however, that although doing practice problems is helpful, it cannot replace learning in the classroom. “Just looking at textbooks themselves can be misleading. The textbooks don’t include all the rich teaching and dialogue that go on in a Singapore math classroom,” Mahoney says. “To an untrained eye they look simple, but the math involved is really quite deep, and that really gets drawn out in the Singapore math classroom.”

Regardless of your child’s relationship with Singapore math now or in the future, your goal should be to support and encourage the style of math learning that works for them. “The parent is the supporter. The parent is the guide in asking questions,” Forsten says. “I believe the best thing they can do is question their children. Questioning children is an excellent way to develop their thinking.” So when your daughter or son comes home with a math problem that you don’t understand, simply ask what they know about it, what they were taught in school, and so on.

A parent should also be open to playing games that rely on math skills and pointing out math in the environment, such as asking what shape the kitchen cabinets are and other real-life math questions.

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  • Fred Horan

    This was not an objective article but rather a sales job. What other math curricula are there that one might compare this with? There was no attempt to include criticism of Singapore method. One would hope that the SIngapore method will be objectively measured by some outside group like the Institute for Education Sciences.

    • Samir Thapa

      I teach my daughters maths with Singapore Maths approach. I buy books online and teach maths based on models. The approach and curriculum is just amazing. It is wrong to assume that this is a sales article. I am currently looking for something like their maths for science.

      BTW in Ontario, Canada, we buy from learning tree house.

    • PrincessWJ

      Hello! I’m from Singapore and yeah, I learn by the Singapore math way.

      I don’t think there are many flaws with this visualisation as I am in the 6th grade and have been using it for six years.

      I like the methods as drawing models help me find the differences between two values and is much more effective than algebra.

      But now I’m in the gifted programme, we don’t use the textbooks anymore, but model drawing is still extremely important!

      Practice makes perfect so if you’re new to this method, of course it takes a while to grasp.

  • Devid smith

    this is good tution in singapore..

  • Rebecca Robinson

    I teach my pig/horse cut-out addition and subtraction. I also teach my dog/mouse cut-out addition and subtraction. My dog/mouse cut-out is six days old. My pig/horse cut-out is also six days old. I am not a man. I like addition and subtraction. I like multiplication. Someday my dog/mouse cut-out will like multiplication. My dog/mouse cut-out likes addition and subtraction. Someday my pig/horse cut-out will learn multiplication. Someday my dog/mouse cut-out will learn astronomy. I am a twenty-six-year-old woman. My older sister is a twenty-eight-year-old woman. My Hawaiian Butterfly Fish cut-out is eleven months old. My Hawaiian Butterfly Fish cut-out is learning Chinese. My Hawaiian Butterfly Fish cut-out likes addition and subtraction.

  • Learn

    There is a article which have a very strong thought and very helpful math suggestion. I also Learn Math Fast from a very helpful website. and very useful and easier to learn from it.

  • Grazia Paladino

    I would like to quote this article in my master’s thesis. It’s possible to have the complete bibliographic reference (e.g year of publication ect)? Thank you

    • TomM60

      Looks like you want to waste your time for your thesis. What the heck did you learn through your 17 year educational process.

  • Dott

    As a Singaporean, I call this nonsense. This contradicts with what I’m learning in Singapore schools. Certain mathematical concepts which can be explained aren’t explained by my maths teacher. Yet, it says, “Mastery, Not Memorisation” in the article. It’s more like “Memorisation, Not Mastery” to me. I have to understand these concepts myself which fortunately is easy for me because I can grasp these concept well.

  • chocki

    Dear parents and students, is officially launching in beta mode and there are plenty of reasons why you should check the site out. 1. Thousands of free “cloned” exam questions to attempt 2. Instant answers and feedback on students’ weak topic areas 3. Has arguably the largest depository of worked video solutions on Singapore math questions with greater than 300 hours worth of video time 4. 2 hours of video solutions uploaded every week for primary 4, 5 and 6. 5. FULL ACCESS FREE for beta users who sign up (limited to 100 users) 6. A great tool for PSLE preparation.If you are interested, kindly send an email to with name to indicate interest. Also, if you could be so kind, forward this message to those whom you think may be interested.

  • auyaya2007

    What a crock. In the early elementary grades this approach to math only creates confusion.

  • Jessica L

    Thank you for sharing. We used Singapore math before as well. At first, we thought it was very fun and easy to teach. However, my son didn’t like it. A lot mental math was required. The drills were more challenging than US math books. We had to quit after just three months.

    When I was looking for a home learning site, my teacher friend recommended Beestar. Beestar has many subject programs available. Its math program is completely free. I subscribed to it and required my son to complete its weekly math practice on time. I’ve seen some questions, very clear and well organized, leading students to grasp every math skill step by step. At the same time, parent can supervise their improvement online. The result was a big surprise. My son has gained strong interest in just a few months because he becomes very confident in math exams and can easily get high score. We will keep using Beestar in the future.

  • TomM60

    Name me some famous physicists and scientists that have done great things with Singapore Math and then I’ll start listening other than that this article is nothing but a sales gimmick. Does anyone remember “Modern Math” that was taught for two years in grade schools around the country? Those were two lost years for the students and I don’t know about your kids but I sent my kids to summer school math classes to learn something and it wasn’t the Modern Math they were being taught.

    • Barney Dinosaur

      I can tell you that Elon Musk (Solarcity, SpaceX, Tesla, formerly Paypal etc) went to Waterkloof Primary school in Pretoria, South Africa and here they use Singapore Math. I cannot say for sure that 30 years ago they used Singapore but you see what I’m saying. The school that produced a Scientist (and other big time scientists) is convinced about Singapore Math.

      • collsimp

        Singapore math wasn’t developed until about 1982 so he would not have been exposed to it.

    • Niku

      Do you mean “New Math”? There was also a “New English.” but I don’t think it was used as much–fortunately.

    • morningsdaughter

      Singapore math is for students who are just learning math. As they build math skills, students learn standard algorithms, the fast and “easy” to do math.
      Singapore math is like training wheels, eventually the child will learn how to ride without them. It might take longer to put together a bike with training wheels, but you don’t expect your child to never use them because professional cyclist never do.

  • Staci Jones

    I understand it can seem like a different way of teaching and learning math but it makes some sense and matches the curriculum we already have. Its fine tuning it. We can either embrace a likely change in the future or think negatively about it.

  • nacrandell

    Sorry – just put my crying 5th grader to bed. The process of estimation is just as long to get an estimate as getting the actual answer.

    Question – would you like to travel over a bridge with a weight requirement that was just estimated?

    • morningsdaughter

      The process of estimation is a learning model, it’s not meant to be used in physics except as a method of checking that your answers are in the right area.
      If your struggling to help your child with math, try talking to their teacher and getting a tutorial.

      • nacrandell

        Wow – making a lot of assumption there. Spoke with the teacher and her aunt who is a math specialist.

        The issue is teaching estimation before teaching math and how it is done.

        If estimation takes as many steps as math does, then why be unproductive and incorrect?

  • Amy

    I have used Singapore Math and love it. My daughters have an in depth understanding of math and it is their favorite subject. First year for homeschool we used Calvert and it was basic. Then went to public school they used NY Engage. it is based off of Singapore. My daughter liked this and did well. Then we went back to homeschool and used Singapore. The homeschool is well written. I tried to show my daughter the old way of doing math and she thought it was hard. The visuals that Singapore uses and the way it builds up and goes over material is interactive and the material sticks. I enjoy teaching it as well

  • Tamra

    My son is in a 4th grade AIG Math class and they are learning Singapore math. My son loves it and finds it easier. He actually understands what he is doing instead of just knowing the answer. He can show you how to do it and explain it to you. My husband and I, of course, did not learn this way so it is difficult for us but he can look at it and generally get it automatically. He’s doing a higher level of math than I did as a freshman in high school.

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